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THE EPISTLE OF PAUL TO THE COLOSSIANS - Chapter 1 - Verse 1

 

COLOSSIANS

 

THE EPISTLE OF PAUL TO THE COLOSSIANS

 

INTRODUCTION.

I.—THE SITUATION OF COLOSSE.

COLOSSE, or, as it is written in many manuscripts, Colosse, was a celebrated city of Phrygia, in Asia Minor. See the map prefixed to the Notes on the Acts of the Apostles. It was in the southern part of that province, was nearly directly east of Ephesus, north of Laodicea, and nearly west of Antioch in Pisidia. It is mentioned by Herodotus (Polyhymn. Lib. viii. c. 30) as "a great city of Phrygia, in that part where the river Lycus descends into a chasm of the earth and disappears, but which, after a distance of five stadia, rises again and flows into the Meander" ev ton maiandron. Xenophon also mentions the city of Colosse as being poliv oikoumenh eudaimwn kai megalh "a city well inhabited, pleasant, and large." Expedi. Cyr. Lib. i. In the time of Strabo, however, it seems to have been much diminished in size, as it is mentioned by him among the "smaller towns," polismata Lib. xii p. 864. In the latter part of the reign of Nero, and not long after this epistle was written, Colosse, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, were at the same time overwhelmed by an earthquake. Pliny, Hist. Nat. Lib. v. c. 41. Colosse recovered, however, from this shock, and is mentioned by the Byzantine writers as among the most opulent cities. See Koppe, Proleg. The ancient town is now extinct, but its site is occupied by a village called Chonos, or Khonas. This village is described by Mr. Arundell as being situated most picturesquely under the immense range of Mount Cadmus, which rises to a very lofty and perpendicular height behind the village, in some parts clothed with pines, in others bare of soil, with vast chasms and caverns. The immense perpendiculary chasm, seen in the view, affords an outlet to a wide mountain torrent, the bed of which is dry in summer. The approach to the village is as wild as the village itself is beautiful, abounding in tall trees, from which vines of most luxuriant growth are suspended. In the immediate neighbourhood are several vestiges of an ancient city, consisting of arches, vaults, squared stones, while the ground is strewed with broken pottery, which so generally and so remarkably indicates the site of ancient towns in the East. That these ruins are all that now remain of Colosse there seems no reason to doubt. The following cut will furnish an idea of their appearance.

Colosse, as has been remarked, was situated in Phrygia. On the name Phrygia, and the origin of the Phrygians, very different opinions have been entertained, which it is not necessary to specify in order to an understanding of this epistle. They claimed to be the most ancient people of the world; and it is said that this claim was admitted by the Egyptians, who though boastful of their own antiquity, were content to regard themselves as second to the Phrygians. Pict. Bib. Like other parts of Asia Minor which were distinguished as provinces under the Roman empire, Phrygia is first historically known as a kingdom, and continued such until it was made a province of the Lydian monarchy. It remained a province of that monarchy until Croesus, king of Lydia, was conquered by Cyrus of Persia, who added the Lydian kingdom to his empire. After that, Phrygia, like the rest of Asia Minor, became successively subject to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Turks. In the time when the gospel was preached there it was subject to the Romans; it is now under the dominion of the Turks. Phrygia was anciently celebrated for its fertility; but, under the Moslem yoke, a great part of the country lies uncultivated.

THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE CHURCH IN COLOSSE.

THE gospel was first preached in Phrygia by Paul and Silas, accompanied also by Timothy, Ac 15:40,41; 16:1-3,6.

It is said that they "went throughout Phrygia," which means, doubtless, that they went to the principal cities and towns. In Ac 18:23, it is said that Paul visited Phrygia again, after he had been to Philippi, Athens, Jerusalem, and Antioch. He "went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples." It is not, indeed, expressly said of Paul and Silas that they went to Colosse; but, as this was one of the principal cities of Phrygia, there is every reason to suppose that they preached the gospel there. It has been doubted, however, whether Paul was ever at Colosse. It is expressly affirmed by Hug, (Intro.,) and by Koppe, (Proleg.,) that Paul had not taught at Colosse himself, and that he had no personal acquaintance with the Christians there. It has been maintained that the gospel was, probably, first preached there by Epaphras, who heard the apostle at Ephesus, and who returned and preached the gospel to his own countrymen. The opinion that Paul had not been there, and was personally unacquainted with the church, is founded on his declaration in Col 2:1, "For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh." From this it is inferred that he was neither at Colosse nor at Laodicea. Yet it may be justly doubted whether this passage will authorize this conclusion. Theodoret long since suggested that the meaning of this was, "I have not only a concern for you, but I have also great concern for those who have not seen me." Dr. Lardher, however, maintains that the gospel was preached in Colosse by Paul. The reasons which he gives for the opinion are briefly these :—

(1.) The declarations of Luke, already quoted, that Paul more than once passed through Phrygia. The presumption is, that he would visit the chief cities of that province in passing and repassing through it. It is to be remembered, that, according to Col 2:1, Colosse and Laodicea are placed on the same footing; and hence the difficulty of the supposition that he did not visit the former is increased. Can it be supposed that Paul would go again and again through that region, preaching the gospel in the points where it would be likely to exert the widest influence, and yet never visit either of these principal cities of the province, especially when it is remembered that Laodicea was the capital?

(2.) Dr. Lardner appeals to what Paul says in Col 1:6; 2:6,7, in proof that he knew that they had been rightly taught the gospel. From this he infers that Paul had himself communicated it to them. This conclusion is not perfectly clear, since it is certain that Paul might have known their first teachers, and been satisfied that they taught the truth; but it is such language as he would have used on the supposition that he was the spiritual father of the church.

(3.) Epaphras, says Dr. Lardher, was not their first instructor in the gospel. This he infers from what is said of him in Col 1:7, and in Col 4:12,13. He is commended as "one of them," as a "fellow-servant," as "a faithful minister of Christ," as one "beloved." But he is not spoken of as sustaining any nearer relation to them. If he had been the founder of their church, he thinks it is incredible that there is no allusion to this fact in writing to them; that the apostle should have spoken more than once of him, and never referred to his agency in establishing the church there.

(4.) Paul does, in effect, say that he had himself dispensed the gospel to these Colossians, Col 1:21-25. The salutations at the end of the epistle, to various persons at Laodicea and Colosse, show that he was personally acquainted there. See these and other reasons drawn out in Lardner's Works, vol. vi., pp. 151 seq., Ed. Lond. 1829. The considerations suggested by Dr. Lardher seem to me to be sufficient to render it in the highest degree probable that the church at Colosse was founded by Paul.

III.——WHEN AND WHERE THE EPISTLE WAS WRITTEN.

THIS epistle is believed to have been written at Rome, when Paul was a prisoner there, and at about the same time that the epistle to the Ephesians, and the epistle to Philemon, were written; and that they were all sent by the same persons. It is said in the epistle itself, Col 4:7,9 that it was sent by Tychicus and Onesimus, both of whom are commended as "faithful and beloved" brethren. But the epistle to the Ephesians was written at Rome, (see the Intro.,) and was sent by Tychicus, (Eph 6:21;) and the epistle to Philemon was sent by Onesimus. It is probable, therefore, that these persons visited Ephesus, Colosse, and the place where Philemon resided; or, rather, that Tychicus and Onesimus visited Colosse together, and that then Tychicus went to Ephesus, and Onesimus went to his former master, Philemon. That this epistle and the one to Philemon were written at about the same time is further apparent from the fact that Epaphras is mentioned in both as with the apostle, and as joining in the salutation, Col 4:12; Php 1:23. The epistle to the Colossians bears internal marks of having been written at Rome, when the apostle was a prisoner. Thus, in Col 1:24, he says, "who now rejoice in my sufferings for you." Col 4:18, "Remember my bonds." If this be so, then it is not difficult to fix the date of the epistle with some degree of accuracy. This would be about the year 62.

IV.—-THE OCCASION AND DESIGN OF THE EPISTLE.

THE general drift of this epistle has a strong resemblance to that addressed to the Ephesians, and it bears internal marks of being from the same hand. It was evidently written in view of errors which extensively prevailed among the churches of that part of Asia Minor, and was designed to inculcate the same general duties. It is of importance, therefore, to possess a general understanding of the nature of these errors, in order to a correct interpretation of the epistle. The church at Colosse was one of a circle or group of churches, lying near each other, in Asia Minor; and it is probable that the same general views of philosophy, and the same errors, prevailed throughout the entire region where they were situated. That group of churches embraced those at Ephesus, Laodicea, Thyatira, and, in general, those addressed in the Apocalypse as "the seven churches of Asia." From some of the notices of those churches in the New Testament, as well as from the epistle before us, we may learn what errors prevailed there in genera], and against what form of error particularly the epistle to the Colossians was designed to guard.

(1.) Several classes of errorists are mentioned as existing within the limits of the "seven churches of Asia." Thus, in the church at Ephesus, "those which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars," Re 2:2; in Smyrna, those "which say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan," Re 2:9; in Thyatira, "that woman Jezebel, which called herself a prophetess," Re 2:20; in Pergamos, "them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans;" those "who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel," Re 2:14,15. The near proximity of these churches to Colosse would render it probable that the infection of these errors might have reached that church also.

(2.) The apostle Paul, in his parting speech to the elders of the church at Ephesus, alludes to dangerous teachers to which the church there might be exposed, in such a manner as to show that there was some peculiar danger from such teachers in that community. "For I know that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them," Ac 20:29,30. He does not specify, indeed, the kind of danger to which they would be exposed; but it is evident that the danger arose from plausible teachers of error. These were of two classes—those who would come in from abroad, implying probably that there were such teachers in the neighbouring churches; and such as would spring up among themselves.

(3.) In that vicinity there appear to have been numerous disciples of John the Baptist, retaining many Jewish prejudices and prepossessions, who would be tenacious of the observances of the Mosaic law. What were their views is not precisely known. But it is clear that they regarded the Jewish law as still binding; that they would be rigid in its observance, and in insisting on its observance by others; that they had at best, if any, a very imperfect acquaintance with Christianity; and that they were ignorant of the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit, and of the fact that that had been poured out in a remarkable manner under the preaching of the apostles. Paul found a number of these disciples of John at Ephesus, who professed not to have received the Holy Ghost, and who said that they had been baptized unto John's baptism, Ac 19:1-3. Among the most distinguished and influential of the disciples of John in that region was Apollos, Ac 18:24,25, who is represented as an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures. He taught at Ephesus; but how long before he was made more fully acquainted with the gospel is unknown. He is represented as having been zealously engaged in that work, and as being eminently successful, Ac 18:25. There is no reason to doubt that he contributed not a little in diffusing, in that region, the peculiar views held by those who were known as the disciples of John. What was precisely the doctrine which Apollos taught, before "the way of God was expounded more perfectly to him," Ac 18:26, is not now known. There is every reason, however, to suppose that he would insist on the observance of the Jewish laws, and the customs of their nation. The opinions which would be likely to be defended by one in his circumstances, would be those which prevailed when John preached—when the law of Moses was considered to be in full force, and when it was necessary to observe all his institutions. The advocates for the Jewish law among the churches would be likely to appeal with great force to the sentiments of so good and so eloquent a man as Apollos. So extensive was his influence, that Koppe supposes that the principal errors prevailing in the churches in Phrygia, which it was the design of the apostle in this epistle to correct, could be traced to the influence of the disciples of John, and especially to the teachings of this eloquent man. Proleg., p. 160.

(4.) If we look into the epistle itself, we shall be able to determine with some degree of certainty the errors which prevailed, and which it was the design of this epistle to correct, and we shall find that they correspond remarkably with what we might anticipate, from what we have seen to be the errors abounding in that region.

(a.) Their first danger arose from the influence of philosophy, Col 2:4-8. The apostle warns them to beware lest any one should "beguile them with enticing words;" he cautions them against "philosophy and vain deceit "—a philosophy that was based on the "tradition of men," "after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." Such philosophy might be expected to prevail in those cities so near to Greece, and so much imbued with the Grecian spirit; and one of the chief dangers which would beset them would arise from its prevalence.

(b.) A second source of danger referred to, was that arising from the influence of those who insisted on the observance of the rites and customs of the Jewish religion. This the apostle refers to in Col 2:16: "Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days." These are subjects on which the Jews would insist much, and in this respect the disciples of John would be likely to sympathize entirely with them. It is evident that there were those among them who were endeavouring to enforce the observance of these things.

(c.) There is some evidence of the prevalence there of a philosophy more Oriental than Grecian—a philosophy that savoured of Gnosticism. This philosophy was subsequently the foundation of a large part of the errors that crept into the church. Indications of its prevalence in Colosse, occur in places like the following: Col 2:9, "For in him [Christ] dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily; "from which it would seem probable that there were those who denied that the fulness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in the Lord Jesus—a favourite doctrine of the Gnostics, who maintained that the assumption of human nature, by the Son of God, was in appearance only, and that he died on the cross only in appearance, and not in reality. So, in Col 2:18, there is a reference to "a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which are not seen, and which tend vainly to puff up a fleshly mind"—a description that will apply with remarkable accuracy to the homage paid by the Gnostics to the AEons, and to the general efforts of those who held the doctrines of that philosophy to intrude into those things which are not seen, and to offer an explanation of the mode of the Divine existence, and the nature of the Divine agency. See Barnes "Col 2:18".

It will contribute not a little to a proper understanding of this epistle, to keep these things in remembrance respecting the kind of philosophy which prevailed in the region in which Colosse was situated, and the nature of the dangers to which they were exposed.

(5.) It will be seen from these remarks, and from the epistle itself, that the difficulties in the church at Colosse did not relate to the moral and religious character of its members. There is no mention of any improper conduct, either in individuals or in the church at large, as there was in the church at Corinth; there is no intimation that they had been guilty of any sins but such as were common to all heathens before conversion. There are, indeed, intimations that they were exposed to sin, and there are solemn charges against indulgence in it. But the sins to which they were exposed were such as prevailed in all the ancient heathen world, and doubtless such as the Gentile part of the church, particularly, had been guilty of before their conversion. The following sins particularly are mentioned: "Fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communications, and lying," Col 3:5-9. These were common sins among the heathen, See Barnes Notes on Romans Chapter 1, and to a re]apse into these they were particularly exposed; but it does not appear that any of the members of the church had given occasion for public reproach, or for apostolic reproof, by falling into them. As they were sins, however, in which they had formerly indulged,

Col 3:7

and as they were, therefore, the more liable to fall into them again, there was abundant occasion for all the solicitude which the apostle manifests on the subject.

From the remarks now made, it is easy to see what was the design of the epistle to the Colossians. It was primarily to guard the church against the errors to which it was exposed from the prevalence of false philosophy, and from the influence of false teachers in religion; to assert the superior claims of Christianity over all philosophy, and its independence of the peculiar rites and customs of the Jewish religion.

It has been asked why the apostle wrote an epistle to the church at Colosse, rather than to the church ia Laodicea, especially as Laodicea was the capital of Phrygia? And it has been asked, also, why an epistle was addressed to that church so strikingly resembling the Epistle to the Ephesians, (see § 5,) especially as it has been supposed that the Epistle to the Ephesians was designed to be a circular letter, to be read by the churches in the vicinity? The reasons why an epistle was addressed particularly to the church at Colosse seem to have been such as the following:—-

(1.) Onesimus was at that time with Paul at Rome, and was about to return to his master, Philemon, at Colosse. See the Introduction to the Epistle to Philemon. It was perfectly natural that Paul should avail himself of the opportunity thus afforded him, to address a letter to the church at Colosse also.

(2.) Epaphras, a principal teacher of the church at Colosse, was also with Paul at Rome, Col 1:7; 4:12. He was at that time a fellow-prisoner with him, Phm 1:23, and it is not improbable that it was at his solicitation particularly that this epistle was written. Paul had learned from him the state of the church at Colosse, Col 1:7,8, and it is not impossible, as Koppe conjectures, that he had been sent to Rome by the church to seek the counsel of the apostle in the state of things which then existed in Colosse. Epaphras was, at any rate, greatly interested in the state of things in the church, as well as in the condition of the churches at Laodicea and Hierapolis, Col 4:13, and nothing was more natural than that he should endeavour to induce the apostle to direct a letter that might be of benefit to them all.

(3.) A particular reason for sending this epistle appears to have been to confirm the authority of Epaphras, and to give the sanction of the apostle to the truths which he had taught. In their difficulties and dangers, Epaphras had taken an important part in giving them counsel. His views might have been opposed; or his authority might have been disputed by the teachers of error there, and it was important that the apostolic sanction should be given to what he had taught. Hence the apostle speaks with so much affection of Epaphras, and so warmly of him as a faithful servant of Christ, Col 1:7; 4:12,13.

 

(4.) It may be added, that although there is a strong resemblance between this epistle and that to the Ephesians, and although it may be regarded as probable that the epistle to the Ephesians was intended in part as a circular, yet this epistle would not have been needless. It contains many things which are not in that epistle; is especially adapted to the state of things in the church at Colosse, and would have the greater weight with Christians there from being specifically addressed to them. See Michaelis' Intro. to the New Testament, vol. iv. 122, and Koppe, Proleg. pp. 163, 164.

V.—-THE RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN THIS EPISTLE AND THAT TO THE EPHESIANS,

EVERY person who has given any considerable degree of attention to this epistle must have been struck with its remarkable similarity to the epistle to the Ephesians. That resemblance is greater by far than exists between any other two of the epistles of Paul—a resemblance not only in the general style and manner which may be expected to characterize the different productions of the same author, but extending to the course of thought; the structure of the argument; the particular instructions; and to some phrases which do not occur elsewhere. This similarity relates particularly to the following points:—

(1.) In the representation of the reason for which the apostle was imprisoned at Rome. This resemblance, Dr. Paley (Horae Paul.) remarks, is "too close to be accounted for from accident, and yet too indirect and latent to be imputed to design, and is one which cannot easily be resolved into any other source than truth." It is not found in any other of his epistles. It consists in this, that Paul in these two epistles attributes his imprisonment not to his preaching Christianity in general, but to his asserting the right of the Gentiles to be admitted into the church on an equal footing with the Jews, and without being obliged to conform themselves to the Jewish law. This was the doctrine to which he considered himself a martyr. Thus, in Col 1:24, he says, "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you;" and in Col 2:1, "For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea." That is, his conflicts and trials, his imprisonment and danger of death, had somehow come upon him in consequence of his endeavouring to spread tile gospel in such places as Colosse and Laodicea. These were Gentile communities; and the meaning is, that his trials were the result of his efforts to preach among the Gentiles. The same representation is made in the epistle to the Ephesians—likewise written from Rome during his imprisonment. "For this cause I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles," Eph 3:1. And this coincidence is also apparent by comparing two other places in the epistles. Thus, Col 4:3, "Praying for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance to speak the mysteries of Christ, for which I am in bonds. An allusion to the same "mystery" occurs also in the epistle to the Ephesians. "Whereby when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ—-that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel," Col 3:4-6. In the Acts of the Apostles the same statement occurs in regard to the cause for which the apostle was persecuted and imprisoned; and it is on this coincidence, which is so evidently undesigned, that Paley has founded the argument for the genuineness of the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. Horae Paulinae. The statement in the Acts of the Apostles is, that the persecutions of Paul, which led to his appeal to the Roman emperor and to his imprisonment at Rome, were in consequence of his maintaining that the Gentiles were, in the Christian administration, to be admitted to the same privileges as the Jews, or that there was no distinction between them in the matter of salvation; and his sufferings therefore were, as he says, "in behalf of the Gentiles." See particularly Ac 21:28; 22:21,22.

From these passages, it appears that the offence which drew down on Paul the vengeance of his countrymen was his mission to the Gentiles, and his maintaining that they were to be admitted to the privileges of salvation on the same terms as the Jews.

(2.) There is a strong resemblance between the course of thought and the general structure of the epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians. To an extent that does not occur in any other of Paul's epistles, the same topics are introduced, and in the same order and connexion. Indeed, in some portions they are almost identical. Particularly the order in which the various topics are introduced is nearly the same. The following portions of the two epistles will be seen to correspond with each other:——

EPHESIANS 1. 15—-19 ........ with COLOSSIANS 1:9—-11.

1. 20—-23 ........ " ........... 1.15—19.

1. 10 ............. " ........... 1.20.

2. 1—10 .......... "............ 1.21—23.

3. 7 .............. " ........... 1.25.

3. 9, 10 .......... " ........... 1.26, 27.

3. 17 ............. " ........... 2.7

2. 11—22 ......... "............ 2.11—-15.

4. 14 ............. "............ 2.8.

4. 15, 16 ......... "............ 2.19.

4. 25 ............. "............ 3.9.

4. 22—-24 ........ "............ 3.9-10.

4. 32 ............. "............ 3.12.

5. 19, 20 ......... "............ 3.16, 17.

5. 21; 6.6—9 ..... "............ 3.18-22; 4.1.

5. 19 ............. "............ 4.3.

5. 16 ............. "............ 4.5.

6. 21 ............. "............ 4.7.

 

This resemblance, thus carried almost through the epistle, shows that there was a similarity of condition in the two churches in reference to the dangers to which they were exposed, the kind of philosophy which prevailed, the false teachers who might have an influence over them, and the particular duties to which it was desirable their attention should be turned. There is, indeed, some considerable variety of phraseology in the discussion of these topics, but still the resemblance is remarkable, and would indicate that the epistles were written not far from the same time, and clearly by the same person. It is remarkable, among other things, as Michaelis has observed, that it is only in these two epistles that the apostle warns his readers against lying, Eph 4:25; Col 3:9. Hence we may conclude that this vice was one that particularly prevailed in the region where these churches were situated, and that the members of these churches had been particularly addicted to this vice before their conversion.

This note is too long to fit in one passage, see it continued in Notes on Col 1:2

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